Sunday, April 29, 2007

Today's Wine Cellar ~ Half-Empty or Half-Full?

Was there ever time when one could think of wine as just something so natural, like the wind and the sun?

In the model of my perfect planet, wine is not a fantasy for the wealthy or the affluent. It is only a small part of the daily life, but an essential one.

In my perfect cellar, there are only a few wines, because most of the have already been opened and enjoyed.

Tonight I tasted a few Brunellos, 2001 and 1997. Both of them seemed ready to drink. In fact the 1997 was already on its way down. But the 2001 was just perfect. That would be for me the way I’d like it, not having to store a lot of wine, just a little and always on the lookout for another 3 or 4 bottles. Small footprint in consumption, but good, very good quality to keep searching for.

No need for special agents, near and far, to protect my personal interests. When it has gotten that the cars and the foods and the wines and the homes have exceeded their value, I can remember the early days when money was tight. But quality remained something worth seeking out, even if we had so little discretionary income.

It wasn’t a barren desert; there was the occasional oasis from which to draw from.

Then time and ambition and work starts to push everything back so far it’s hard to see the important, the essential, that which is important, friends and family, a simple life.

The fall from grace, the original sin of the wine trail, is to look too much for the defining moment in wine tasting and wine loving. There is a little of the narcissist in those who search only for the 98 point Brunello, shunning the lowly 91 or 92 pointer.

Italian wines that have a sense of the place they come from have less of a sense for their “point-worthiness.” Who cares?

Do you really think that wine is being made by a person who cares more for a review than their relationship with their plot of land, their earth? Yes, it takes more work and diligence, and yes it might not be a status symbol to order it at the hot new place in town. All the more reason to care about these kinds of wines.

Sure sometimes a wine, by virtue of its quality and the trajectory of its popularity, will become “cult.”

That is like the beautiful girl you knew in high school who went out west and made it in the movies. She no longer belongs to where she came from. Her new world has taken her into another ambience. Forget about her.

She won’t be at the table, nor will those wines, anymore.

Is it sad? A world one grows up in that seems foreign and unrecognizable? Or a world with mystery and new encounters, waiting for you to step on over into the secret corridor and launch into an interesting and fulfilling universe of discovery?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Thank God It's Flight-Day

I’m now officially out of my special Italian Orange liqueur, which means my secret writing weapon is spent. After a week of working long hours and nights writing these posts, I am cooked. But onward, through the fog, toiling, ever vigilant of the need to move onward, upward into the light. Man, sometimes I just want to jump out, pull the rip-cord and head for my island.

Fortunately the weekend is near, so I can get some work done. Hundreds of arugula sprouts are screaming in my hothouse, begging to be taken outside and planted in the earth, with the bees and the sparrow hawks and the outlaw coyote that is cleaning up the neighborhood of meandering felines.

Later today, if anyone reading this is in the Dallas, Texas area, I will finish up the week with a Friday Night Wine Flight, five Sicilian wines. I’ll be taking those folks, who show, on a Sicilian Carousel, starting with several Nero d’Avolas, a white Grillo and a surprisingly good Syrah.

This is not for Master Sommeliers-in-waiting; besides they’re way too busy developing their careers (and, apparently, to return calls as well). No, this is for regular folks who want to hear stories about wine and friends. Details here.

Speaking of wines and friends, the importers have come a knockin’ this week. Seems they’re back from Vinitaly with their sample cases full of new stuff that the market can’t live without. We’ll see. I still am looking at wine from last year's Vinitaly (and the year before), some of which are in my employers warehouses, still looking for someone to love them.

These guys know how to "slice the pie"

If you are an importer or a marketing person or a hopeful-wannabee, please know this. We want you to make a pile of money and be happy, just as long as you don’t expect us to be thrown out of the plane in mid flight. Come as a partner with realistic expectations. Respect the experience some of us have gained over the years, it could save you a lot of time and heartache. And please, many of us are working 60-70 hours a week for 20+ years at this. We may live in a backwater market, that doesn’t mean we are “jejune”, as Woody Allen would say. We're not "all hat-no cattle", as we say, in the local dialect.

Wine note this week- not Italian, but a nice beverage, Pierre Sparr Alsace One. Five grapes. Had it twice, once in a tasting, once at a lunch. Great with lentil soup and some sautéed perch. The wine had a clean backbone of crispness aligned with the spices of the fruit (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Muscat and Pinot Gris)
Pierre Sparr Alsace One – Under $15.

Wine before it's time - 1 Liter Italian varietals in tetra-pax. The 17 and 18 year olds will be ready for this in 3-4 years when they are legal and looking for a good value that is 100% recyclable. That is, if the World Bank doesn't devalue the dollar anymore.

So, for the moment I'm writing dry, and it’s late again. Big developments coming. The writing thing will soon blossom. And the day job, well it soon will go to the next level too. I must do something big, before my heart bursts. Passion, baby.

And lastly, too crazy, but I actually heard this tonight (see cartoon below). The world turns and gets more and more interesting in a wicked sort of way.

Like I said earlier, got to rise above it.

And good night.

Comments here:Italianwinetrail[at]yahoo[dot]com

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Storming the Tower with Straw

Have you ever experienced moments when you look forward, and also to the past, and have been seeing the space between them compressing? Did the 1950’s exist, or are they a history that you didn’t really experience, like the 1940’s or the 1930’s or renaissance Italy? Or ancient Rome?

All through this time grapes grow, wine is made. I read of a time, 4,500 years ago, about the winemakers who traded with the Egyptian rulers. This area, Northern Sinai, had a period of 200 years when they did a lot of business with the Nile leaders. Imagine, 8 generations or winemaking, just how good they could have gotten at making wine great. Passing along information, sharpening their skills, improving their winemaking, and handing it over to the next generation. I would love to have tasted those wines. Or maybe I did.

Now, the 1960’s don’t seem so far away, just a generation ago. It was the beginning of a move towards living lighter off the land, more in harmony with nature, what we presently call living with a smaller carbon footprint.

Well there I was, walking in the Sierras, heading for a little tree house by a river for a short time. Nearby a giant fig tree pushed out fruit for the birds and the lucky humans who witnessed the ripening. Behind us was a mountain range that was gentle and rugged and ancient. In front of us, the south fork of the American River rolling, waiting for us to jump on.

Simple. Happy. Timeless.

Meanwhile, halfway across the planet, war was waging, ripping, burning forests, poisoning rivers, destroying shelters for many souls, and lives lost.

We were heading towards our Summer of Love, while some would never make it past the Fall. Many marched, taking a trail towards the Promised Land.

Hey, look yonder, tell me what you see
Marching to the fields of Gettysburg?
It looks like Handsome Johnny with a flintlock in his hand,
Marching to the Gettysburg war, hey marching to the Gettysburg war

-Richie Havens

Winemakers marched too. They marched, but returned to their fields. Some set about putting into practice some of those convictions that inspired us to our life of adult activity. It was called the One Straw Revolution.

At Universities, Campaniles rang out the hours, the days, and the eras.

What have we learned? And what will we hand over to the next generation? Rows of zero-lot houses off some road leading from the cities? Fields of crops looking for the bees to return and pollinate them in an ancient and necessary rite.

The vines will wait for them, can't make it without them. We might end up with Barolo in Bernkastel, Sangiovese in Soultzmatt.

Thank God the young winemakers of Italy, and the world, are hearing the warning signs. People like Marco Torriti at Mongrana (il primo vino di Querciabella in Maremma), who mentions Masanobu Fukuoka with a look in his eye that takes us back 4,500 years ago, to the 9th generation.

Hey, look yonder, tell me what's that you see
Marching to the fields of Argentaria?
It looks like Handsome Gianni with a Green-Mix in his hand,
Marching to the One Straw Revolution, hey marching to the One Straw Revolution.

The sirens have been sounded; it's time to storm the tower, ragazzi. March, but make your footprint light, in preparation for the generations to follow you.

Carbon Footprint Calculator

Photos by Alfonso Cevola

Sunday, April 22, 2007

You'll Like This Wine, It Doesn't Taste Italian

It was Friday afternoon and there was a meeting with a broker, more affectionately known as the “wine criminal”. He has been given this name because he has shown wines that seem to be priced way below the market, hence there might be something about them that might involve practices outside of the law.

And while folks such as Piero Antinori say: “ancient roots play an important role in our philosophy, but they have never held back our spirit of innovation”, I don’t think this is quite what he had in mind.

Anyway, we were doing our part, listening, tasting, being led by a young supplier and his agent. We were attentive, but not as naïve as I felt we were perceived as being. Not a problem, I don’t mind being “mis-underestimated”.

Sealing the Deal
What really made my day, though, was when the broker opened up a bottle of red wine and said the words,” You'll like this, it doesn't taste like an Italian wine.” My response, “Great, all the better to go with the food at Italian restaurants that doesn’t taste Italian.”

I am not making this up. I will only say that this is not the way to my heart. And while I am not a snob, I am assuredly looking for authentic Italian experiences in wine.

Later that night I finished up the week at a very fancy and highly regarded Italian restaurant. Great pizza, innovative cooking, we had a carpaccio of pesce spada (swordfish) that was downright there-on-the-island good.

Pizza and Primitivo
A red wine was suggested to go with the pizza. A Primitivo from Puglia was opened and poured. I have liked Primitivo and wines from Puglia, since my first trip there 30 years ago. In those days we carried a one liter bottle and filled it up along the way. In 1977 a liter of red cost about 46 cents. Negro Amaro or Uva di Troja, maybe an occasional Primitivo. Decent, wholesome, tasting of a region, with lots of sun. Not a problem for me. But on this night the Primitivo tasted of manipulation, especially in the finish. Too creamy, too smooth, it also didn’t taste like an Italian wine.

You'll Like These Wines, They Do Taste Italian
So rather than live in a world where things Italian don’t taste Italian, here are two wines we have been tasting, alongside made-by-hand meals.

Cantele Primitivo
A simple wine, clean yes, but tan and healthy. People treat Puglia like some sort of Appalachia, but that is incorrect. Puglia is far from the center, a lot of tourists never make is that far south. Fine with me, and the Pugliese too. Fruit of cherry, rustic like a well-worn rocking chair. The press likes it. Good for them.

Ver Sacrum- San Savino
Holy Spring, the Latin translation. No wood, thank you. Montepulciano in purezza. From the Marche, an almost New World growing zone. This vineyard could be in Santa Barbara, California. Fortunately, in this climate the winemaker manages to make a wine that is Italiano in purezza. Fruit is rich, yes. Alcohol is high, but somehow it manages to maintain its balance. More info here.

So while I am not the kind that writes wine notes exclusively, I am of a mind to find an alternate, a wine or two that do “taste Italian”.

Italy makes many wines, many styles. Just try to find ones that taste like they come from somewhere. Open them up, pour them into your glass, close your eyes and breathe in. If it smells like you are in Italy, take a sip and give thanks. You have landed.

With Gianni and Paolo Cantele in Lizzanello,Puglia

Comments here:Italianwinetrail[at]yahoo[dot]com

Friday, April 20, 2007

Insatiable Is Not Sustainable

Tonight I went to a restaurant that has opened up since I came back from Vinitaly. It was an eye-opener into the collective psyche of this place we call home. I admit that, after almost 30 years in this town, I too, am a stranger in a strange land.

Who's Your Daddy?
Young girls in Bustiers prancing about, as if to keep me awake, blaring music, not even a soothing trance, but some sort of dissonant jumble of samples. “Break on through to the other side”, Jim Morrison, wails, but there is no other side. The world is flat, and this experience of going out to dinner is an amped up version of someone’s idea of dining with the stars, the Vegas syndrome. Tables of Doctors grabbing the 98 point Brunello and banging it down, before they head out to the ballgame. Young women, tossed and pushed up, and looking to make it out of the savannas for a season. Where do all these girls come from? Who is paying for all of this? This, a reflection of our self-centered narcissism, the hubris that surrounds this country and thwarts any cultural evolution. An insatiable scenario, no one will ever get enough, even when their bellies are full and their credit limits have been extended.

Unfortunately, it’s true. I’ll borrow from the words of Eric Burdon and say it. We gotta get out of this place. But this place might be anyplace and the fighter in me says, burrow down, build up your strength, and go out and fight another day, and another, and another. They all get older; they all have to face up to themselves in the mirror. None of us are spared the cycle of life and the time it takes to go around. Mantra: This will change, this will get better, it already has. And again.

Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously **
On the back of a car in traffic, a bumper sticker proclaimed, “Insatiable is not sustainable.” Water from Fiji Island, meat from Illinois, salami from Washington, wine from Verona. All guilty, all of it, all of us. And at the end, we drown a scoop of ice cream in espresso and call it an affogato, as if to wash away any last remnant of feeling we might have for this evening. Unless one would care for cup of Recioto for $50. Or maybe a single vineyard grappa for $35. Full, but unfulfilled.

OK, enough.

Wine Note ~ Why Not?
Most interesting wine that I would not normally encounter? Rousseau Chambertin, 1996 and 2000. I primed the pump by sampling a whole range of 2003-4-5 Moreau Chablis and 2005 Potel-Aviron cru Beaujolais. Somewhere along the line I got a headache, was it the new oak barrels or the new oak pollen, which was at level Red.

The Chambertins; 2000 was open and fruity and rich and smooth and deep and delicious. 1996 was closed and funky and tight and slightly volatile. At first. Over the period of several hours the 1996 opened up, smoothed out and blew past the 2000. Both wines were most interesting to taste. (Thanks to Joe Sag)

Note: The whole time I was thinking about Barbaresco and how that wine affects me. I have no idea why.

Sit On a Potato Pan, Otis *
Best wine experience I had this week: In San Antonio, at a tasting I was working. I had a whole slew of wonderful Italian wines. A young couple walks up to the booth, asks to taste a couple of my wines and borrow a pen to take notes. The woman was pretty and exotic, reminded me of someone from the mid 1970’s. Wrapped her little boy in a fabric around her body, slightly bohemian, very natural, a nice time trip for me. An engaged, unpretentious, comfortable-in-their-skins couple. They were interested in tasting wines I was interested in, a Muller-Thurgau and Traminer blend from Basilicata and a Rosato from Piedmont. Wines I liked, they listened, tasted and went back to the Cru Beaujolais and the Grand Cru Chablis tables. He also reminded me of someone.

Sore Was I Ere I Saw Eros *
I found out later they had a French inspired restaurant in town, very high level ( it had even been written up in the N.Y. Times and Gourmet). The cool thing was, I didn’t know who they were, they didn’t know me from Adam. And maybe because we have reached a certain level of expression in our trade, I felt a kindred-folk connection. It was like looking at myself 30 years ago. Thanks Andrew and Maureen, that was a needed moment. I must come and visit your cuisine.

Packed my bags....ready to go...

Vintage Images from PLAN59.COM

*Palindromes, just because I like them.

* * Thanks, Noam

Comments here:Italianwinetrail[at]yahoo[dot]com

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Tree Hugger

For the past few weeks I’ve been on a lot of planes. In a lot of places, New York, Verona, Alba, Frankfurt, Houston and San Antonio. Some great wine and food, wonderful encounters with interesting people. My global village. But tonight I will put my head on my pillow in my bed. Local sleep, slow sleep, sustainable sleep, yes.

In an airport waiting for a plane to catch up with me, I was scanning a piece by Thomas Friedman titled, “The Power of Green.” It got me to thinking about my little patch of green back home.

Which is where the Sardegnan tree hugger comes in. His nickname is Cecio. I call him Cucureddu, he calls me Capo Bastone. We’ve connected on a tribal level in the urban jungle. He runs an Italian kitchen in my town, very successful (though the wine list is overdo for a makeover). But he’s even much better in the garden outside than in the restaurant inside.

Tomatoes and artichokes, olive trees and herbs grow in a slice of earth here, a patch there. In one spot he has myrtle (mirto) plants growing so he can make his own infusions. Once he took me up to the attic where he was curing his own prosciutto.

In his 40’s now, usually with a Marlboro hanging from his lips, Cecio is in the old age of his youth. A ladies man, and one who raced onto the urban scene from his sleepy little seaside village in Sardegna, a town called Orosei.

I came to know Orosei through the writings of Salvatore Satta and Grazia Deledda, two very famous writers. And through Cecio, for the practical and primordial matter of being Sardegnan. The Sardegnans fascinate me. An island, but in many ways the anti-Sicily. Fiercely independent, they make the stubborn Calabrese culture look yielding, like butter that has been set on a sun drenched window sill. Opinionated, and innocently guarded of any civilization that might threaten their way or their progress. Tough folks, but thanks to time spent with my Persian friends, I think I can navigate my way through their world.

And what a world it is, so beautiful, the water, the light, the stars. Basic, elemental, simple, uncluttered. The island has become a haven for the famous and the wealthy looking to loosen their burden for a few weeks.
Funny, how those who “have it all” look to a place of simplicity to return to a way that they can never have. How ironic.

I asked Cecio if he would help me trim a few trees, especially the fig. The fig is a fabulous producer, but it had grown too high and needed to be brought back into the yard. My friend had been trained by his father, so I was sure he learned the right way. In fact all the fig (and fruit) trees I saw recently in Italy had been trimmed exactly like Cecio trimmed the one back home. We should rename him, maybe Capo Fico.

He climbed up and took it on like a sculptor would take on a piece of Carrara marble. With his chainsaw, he went about the tree, trimming here, carving there. It was truly great to watch him in an instinctive labor. I see him in the restaurant, flirting with the ladies, acting all sophisticated and urbane. But up in that tree I saw a man in his element, approaching his mature persona with diligence and discipline. And he is so good in that world. I tell him he has the green thumb. He grows lemons in January, tomatoes in March, it's like he brought the California (or Mexico or Sardegna) weather onto his little patch of earth. He has his own weather patterns.

What is so wonderful to see is, though he has access to money and famous people, it seemed I saw a happy man up in my trees, doing what came naturally to him. Cecio dancing in the sky with his true self.

My yard is a better place for it. Green is good.

Next, we’re going to save the world for the bees and make safe havens for these gentle creatures that seem to be losing the battle against the march of progress.

On the wine trail: Canonnau grapes in North Texas. That's all the wine talk for this posting.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Simple Trattoria in Rome

Once Upon a Time in Rome
It must have been 1988 or 1990. We were in Rome, staying at the Rafael near Piazza Navona. It was June and not yet the scalding fry-pan Rome could sometimes become in the summer.

Twenty years before, I had wandered Rome for a week or two, with a camera. Looking back, I was capturing a city that was disappearing, a modern chapter that was submerging into history. That Rome is now gone and another layer has been covered over the one I first knew.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Italian White Wine ~ Which is North, Which is South?

Out from the pavilions, and back on the wine trail in Italy

Two wines that I had at Vinitaly earlier this month, one from the North and the other from the South.

On the Third Day
It all started during a day when my palate was worn out, my tongue literally was burnt, from tasting young red wine. Yeah, some of it had been micro-oxygenated, but a good portion had been barrel tormented. Fortunately the trend seems to be ending, especially in Piedmont (as opposed to Tuscany, another post for another day).

As a break, and still staying on a schedule, I opted for an afternoon of white wine tasting. Personal note, I like white wine, think Riesling is fantastic, love Verdicchio, Fiano, Grechetto, Garganega and almost any white wine well made. Savennieres, Chablis, you name it. Seems at times red wine will give my head a pounding.

From the Top
I started at the top and headed down the list. Two wines stood out. A Muller Thurgau and Traminer blend was one of the wines that really got my attention. Why? The crisp, clean flavors, the sharp acidity, the focus and the winemaking were spot on. The wine had healthy fresh fruit but wasn’t cloying. There was a good balance, great to sip as an aperitif but also available to go with food prepared from that fine Italian hand. A particular wine and very original.

The other wine, from a grape called Anas-cetta, has its roots drawn from the Sardegnan Vermentino. Rich and round, a little fuller bodied, slightly more alcohol, a touch, just an accent, of wood. Not too much. Here was a dancer, tanned and well fed but agile and graceful. We had this wine again at a hill-top restaurant with another gorge-us plate of hand-made pasta. Of course, with food it found its partner. And the dance was complete.

The Italian Paradox
Odd though, was that the two wines posed a bit of a paradox to those of us tasting them. The first wine felt cool and lean and slightly nervous like a wine from the Alto Adige. The second wine had the generosity of the sun, fullness and a voluptuousness one might think more likely to come from the sunny South.

One might think
The Muller-Thurgau and Traminer blend however, came from a volcanic hillside vineyard in Basilicata. A foggy, often harsh climate which makes for a struggle, both by humans and by grapes. Normally a place for one of the great red wines of the south, the Aglianico.

The Anas-cetta also came from a hillside, this one called Ravera, in Novello, in the Piemonte region. Another area known more for red wine, this time the Nebbiolo, where some of the great Barolo wines are born.

North is South and South is North
Seek these wines out, they are both artisanally produced in minute quantities. The Muller-Thurgau and Traminer blend is from Re Manfredi, called Terre degli Svevi (land of the Swabians, the empire of Federico II, also another subject for a future post). US importer is Frederick Wildman.

The Anas-cetta is from Valter Fissore of the Elvio Cogno winery. US importer is Vias. Valter and his wife Nadia reflect the young but solid second revolution we are beginning to see in Piemonte.

The restaurant? In La Morra, Ristorante Belvedere. The day we were there the Bel-vedere was shrouded in fog.

This is the view when the nebbia (fog) has cleared. Fortunately the food provided a clear view of the capability of the Piemontese kitchen.

Grazie, Valter.

Comments here:Italianwinetrail[at]yahoo[dot]com

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Palate Pleasing Pomegranate Pandas

OK, so if the last few posts have been a little too serious or snarky, this one might sound a little too gum-popping casual. Bear with me. Or, rather, Panda.

Last week, at Vinitaly, we were tasting close to 100 wines a day. It's not because I was trying to prove anything to anyone. I just had a lot of people to meet with and a lot more wine to taste. That's the day job, living the dream. So I wish I could have had something to cleanse the palate with, something to help my tongue and the inside of my mouth, to get me through the next Primitivo, the next Barolo, the unavoidably over-oaked Super Tuscan.

Help came a week too late. A package of Bissinger's Pomegranate White Tea Gummy Pandas was given to me. Seems folks at the Dallas Morning News used them for an article, between wine courses, to do just that, clear the palate. I thought, Gummy Pandas? Not even the Bears, a knockoff Panda model? Then I tried them.

Something about the almost neutral quality of the pomegranate and the white tea along with the soft and chewy tannin-absorbency really makes this offbeat combination work. Try them out, if you care to. I'm hooked.

Don't worry, I have more pensive posts pending. While this might seem poised as pandering, it actually is a practical prescription for plain and simple palate cleansing.

Now, if we could just find a solution for the next epidemic that is plaguing the booths at Vinitaly - plumber's butt.

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